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North West Focus

By The Drum, Administrator

February 15, 2007 | 11 min read

Over the past ten years, the North West marketing industry has been busy carving out a reputation for creative achievement. The acknowledgement that the BBC is to open a creative hub in Manchester and that Liverpool is to be Capital of Culture in 2008 show that even Europe has begun to take notice of its emergence.

It’s not just excellence in marketing either, Manchester is home to more students than anywhere else in Europe and it’s not particularly difficult to see its draw. The city has become ‘cool’, an achievement that would’ve seemed a distant dream just a decade ago, while Liverpool is coming up along similar tracks thanks to hefty inward investment.

So what makes the region such a vibrant, creative place? “It stems from our history in creating things,” says Ann Rimmer, managing director of Bury-based Clock Creative, “- anything from engineering to music, the North West has always been a haven of ideas and innovation.”

Alistair Sim, managing director of Love, adds: “Manchester is undoubtedly the second creative capital in country, so it’s difficult to talk about the North West as a creative region without speaking about the city. In has now reached a sort of critical mass of agencies and that’s helped to make it successful from a creative perspective.

“At one point there were three or four large marketing agencies, which handled some fairly large well-known clients. However, it reached a point where is was doing more harm than good, because these agencies were soaking up all the talent as there was nowhere else to work. What’s happened over the last ten years is as some of these agencies have run into trouble, staff have left and a raft of independent start-ups have emerged. It’s these smaller, nimble agencies that are making all the noise.”

True North’s managing director, Martin Carr lists “long-standing musical and artistic heritage, biggest student population in Europe, regeneration of the city, the BBC move, and the birth of things like CIDS and the Design Initiative” as some of the key factors in why Manchester is regarded as a highly creative city.

Likewise, Bill Green, director of Manchester-based Funnel Creative, believes the North West’s creative industry has existed for a long time, but only now is it being fully recognised. “The North West has always been a creative environment, certainly if you include music into the equation. Perhaps the North’s industrial past has always provided sufficient amount of grit to force people to think a little differently. Having the right environments available in this small geographic area to share these thoughts is the key.”

These environments are certainly being put in place. Manchester’s dramatic transformation over the last 10 years into an attractive, pulsating city has played no small part and other parts of the region are following suit. “There has been massive investment into the likes of Manchester and Liverpool in recent years,” says David Eccles of Bolton-based Fudge Studio. “Business on a whole has been lifted by this and a number of companies, who, perhaps, would have automatically turned to London to house their operations, are seeing the North West as a viable option.

“As a result of this,” Eccles adds, “service-led industries have benefited hugely. Plus, there are organisations like the NWDA, Manchester Digital and CIDS, all championing creative industries and helping to encourage investment.”

Sarah Elderkin, development director at Design Initiative, highlights the role of key events and industry networks, in revealing the strengths of the sector. “Design Initiative’s FUTURES network in Merseyside, Group Hub in Preston, the Roses Design Awards and the increasing regional profile of D&AD and DBA all contribute to building a strong cluster. The growing range of events and specialist support includes opportunities to celebrate design excellence and to learn together about approaches to improving business practices.”

Sim is another who believes CIDS is making a significant difference. “They’ve been doing a lot of great work. Particularly with The Loop events, which have been fantastic - they’ve managed to attract some outstanding and often inspirational guest speakers. It takes a lot of hard work and effort to pull off these sort of events regularly, especially to the standards they’ve achieved so far.”

The economic benefits of the BBC’s move to Salford and Liverpool’s Capital of Culture win have been well documented, and arguably exaggerated, but how will these developments impact on the region’s creativity? At present, it’s believed the BBC is drawing up a North West roster.

Fergus McCallum, CEO, Tequila\\ Manchester, says: “First and foremost these events can only be good for the creative industries in the North West. By their very nature they will add strength to what is already a very positive creative scene.

“Furthermore the momentum they provide will hopefully, once and for all, help quash the myth that you need to go to London if you want to make it in the creative industry.

“The developments that come out of the BBC move and Capital of Culture 2008 will add scale to the industry up here and ultimately create more opportunities for the people who work here - opportunities that will keep the top talent here and help further enhance the vibrancy of the creative industry in the North West.”

Meanwhile, Carr insists the two developments will also make the South take the North more seriously. “It’ll heighten the focus from London and other European countries on Manchester (in particular) and Liverpool and increase a recognition that these cities have artistic, creative energy as part of their DNA.”

Elderkin adds: “While great leaps have been made in educating businesses about the effective use of design, at Design Initiative we feel that this work needs to continue. It\'s important to ensure that the excellent work continues to be recognised and that agencies remain competitive and retain their creative edge above those outside of the region. Many businesses still feel that there is a need to approach agencies in London and we still need to reverse some of that thinking and the BBC move and Capital Of Culture will provide an opportunity to show that the region itself means business when it comes to the commissioning of design.”

Eccles agrees: “Although the BBC moving up is fantastic, and will no doubt have a big impact, if they weren’t to come I still think people would keep doing the great things that they’ve been doing for some time. What it will do, however, is make people take the North West more seriously than ever before.”

Meanwhile, Green says that while he hopes the BBC and Capital of Culture developments will “increase potential” for the two cities, there’s still enough going on to make people take notice of the North West. “There’s more to the region than the BBC move and the Capital of Culture 08. The world’s eye is on the region, and, in particular, Manchester, for all sorts of reasons. For example, big businesses relocating here, tourism, culture-before the capital of culture. It can only increase the offer.”

Sim adds: “The Capital of Culture is a good opportunity for Liverpool, much in the same way the Commonwealth Games were for Manchester. But there’s also things like the Manchester International Festival, which, while not as big as the Capital of Culture, will be a great showcase for creativity in the city.”

In terms of marketing, the region has benefited from a superfluity of agencies consistently producing high-end creative work for their clients. In the likes of Preston, Bury, Manchester, Liverpool and Chester, agencies big and small are grabbing headlines and achieving results for clients.

Carr marks Code Computerlove and Mark Design as two agencies he admires in the region, but admits some of the more established players are faltering. “Many of the rest make a lot of noise about not a lot, which was a malaise that Manchester suffered from generally in the past. Gratifyingly there is more of substance here now, but not that much in the field of graphic design. Maybe architecture, performing arts, music, clubs, fashion, but not necessarily graphics.”

Meanwhile, Eccles believes The Chase, Love, Code and magneticNorth are all delivering top-notch creative work in their respective fields. “There are a number of smaller one-, two- and three-man bands that have sprung up in recent years and this added competition has meant other agencies have had to up their game to survive. This has had a positive effect on the levels of creativity that we’ve seen.”

Unfortunately, while region continues to exude a confidence and enthusiasm befitting of its development as a creative hub, there’s mixed feelings surrounding the standard of graduates coming out of local universities and colleges. A common perception, it would appear, is that the experiences - be them from life or vocation - are falling some way short of what is required.

“Whilst there are some creative genius\' every year, I feel the universities have to work much harder with industry to improve the courses and prepare candidates to go straight into work,” comments Rimmer.

Meanwhile, Elderkin says: “In light of the BBC move and Capital Of Culture, it\'s vital that universities and colleges address the issues around their own preparedness at such a critical time, where they must ensure they are offering their graduates the best kind of learning experience. It must be industry focused as we\'ve found that far too many students from various design disciplines are graduating with a lack of knowledge about their career in their chosen field. Whether this is a graduate seeking employment within a design agency or an entrepreneurial desire to set up their own business, Design Initiative can see clearly, through its own one-to one advisory services for designers, that these individuals are often quite unprepared for their lives beyond the campus.

“It\'s great to see so many agencies and universities are aware of this problem and are doing what they can to address these deficiencies by working closely with lecturers and with creative industries organisations, like Design Initiative for example, including workshops and talks, the offer of live briefs to work on and in-house work experience.

Eccles adds: “We do get a lot of the same old stuff and some of the tutors we speak to appear to be a little out of touch, which is obviously having an effect on the students. This needs to change if the graduates are going to be at the right level to come into the industry and help it maintain where it’s at the moment or even take it forward.”

One problem Green highlights is the lack of diversity of the students graduating in the region. “Universities and colleges providing creative education are in danger of attracting students already living and raised locally due to the rising cost of studying away from home.

“What makes the creative, academic environment perfect, I think, is tapping into the diverse mix of students from all over. Some of the best creatives in the country, wishing to be educated here, could be missing out due to these costs. The biggest losers are other students who are educated here and the region’s industry in the long term.”

However, Sim is adamant that progress is being made. Love has received a number of calls, he admits, from university lecturers trying to shape the curriculum more appropriately for the real world. “And then there’s D&AD,” he adds, “which have been working very closely with universities and colleges, even laying on workshops for students where they take on briefs from Northern agencies. Plus, they run something called the D&AD Exchange, where agencies give presentations to lecturers from the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

“So the links between business and education are certainly improving. It’s just a matter of whether agencies are willing to donate their time and resources to move it along, without any real return other than maybe getting a first look at graduates. Only then will the trend of graduates heading straight to London begin to turn fully.”

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